Is First Friday Falling Behind the City's Fast-Growing Arts Scene?

By Katherine Rochester
Add Comment Add Comment | Comments: 4 | Posted Jun. 29, 2011

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Mention Philly’s art scene, and someone is bound to reference First Friday, the monthly art event in which galleries stay open late(ish) and woo visitors with cheap drinks, voluminous socializing and freshly hung art. Phillyartgalleries.com advertises itself as “Your comprehensive resource for Philadelphia art galleries,” and it’s probably the most visible site for info on the art fest. But start clicking on links and you might begin to wonder whether you’ve stumbled upon a parable in the form of a space/time rupture. Many of the links in the “participating galleries” list lead nowhere, bits of information seem grossly outdated and the ’90s-era interface suggests that while the art scene has progressed, time has stood still for the website. It may be a gloomy litmus test but it makes us wonder: Is First Friday failing to keep up with an arts scene that has swollen well beyond the cobbled streets of Old City?

Begun in 1991 by the Old City Art Association, First Friday was firmly rooted in what is now a touristy and increasingly trendy neighborhood. Today, Old City offers up a dense cluster of commercial galleries but its draw for people on the hunt for experimental art has weakened considerably in the face of an exodus of nonprofit spaces. Forced to find a new building when the Convention Center expanded in 2008, Vox Populi (319 N. 11th St.) moved to Chinatown while Temple Gallery (2001 N. 13th St.) abandoned its Old City digs in 2009 for Kensington.

“I stopped going to Old City when Temple moved,” says Philly-based artist Anthony Campuzano, whose refrain appears to be common among the younger art-savvy set. As significant presenters of emerging art, both Vox’s and Temple’s moves precipitated a northerly shift in the migratory patterns of concentrated gallery-hopping. In fact, the First Friday scene has become so entrenched in the Chinatown area that—just like any hotspot du jour—it already has its detractors. “Vox is really more of a social scene on First Fridays,” observes First Friday attendee David Lentz, 26. (Also a familiar refrain for 20-something art lovers.) So whether it’s Old City or the Vox building, First Friday scores high on people-watching and low on art-gazing—which may be why some galleries choose to avoid the event altogether.

It’s telling that Bodega (253 N. Third St.)—the only artist-run space in Old City whose name carries serious cred with the Chinatown and Kensington crowd—pointedly abstains. Likewise, spaces in Kensington approach First Friday with leery skepticism and minced words. “We participate in First Fridays occasionally now, but we don’t like to let that structure determine how long our shows run, and when they open,” writes Derek Frech of Extra Extra (1524 Frankford Ave.) in an email. Angela Jerardi of Flux Space (3000 N. Hope St.) agrees. She says Flux isn’t eager to be associated with “what feels like a bar crawl for art.” Instead, it has openings on Saturdays.

For dissidents like Lentz, who are on the prowl for an art-viewing experience minus the “seen and be seen” vibe, Kensington offers something different. The newly reopened gallery Little Berlin (2430 Coral St.) embodies the ethos of this expanded scene. According to co-founder Kristen Neville-Taylor, Little Berlin moved to East Kensington to stretch its legs in “a less residential space in order to garner the freedom to host a wider gamut of events and performances.”

Like Little Berlin, Flux Space relishes the expansive freedom of its remote location and self-selecting audience: “When people come to Flux they really come to see the art,” Jerardi says. The same can’t be said for the crowds at most successful First Friday venues, although what other spaces may lack in gravitas, most people would agree they make up for with fun. At this point, First Friday is off the table for Flux Space, in part because Jerardi doesn’t think they could draw the crowd to their far-flung location.

Given the art scene’s steady march to the north, First Friday may well remain a southern soiree, leaving the Chinatown/Kensington/NoLibs galleries to decide whether they should be creating their own art-viewing extravaganza. Second Saturdays, anyone?

Click here for PW's July 1 First Friday picks.

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COMMENTS

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1. pete said... on Jun 29, 2011 at 01:37PM

“Some of us are bypassing the gallery system
entirely through online networking and blogs.

Reality is transitory, so Olde City cannot be
the ,"hot spot", forever.

The new ,"hot spots", are in neighborhoods
and areas which frighten some of us old folks
and so we rely on second hand accounts or
websites to know what is happening there.

Atleast Olde City is accessible to old folks who
cannot get around to visit the cool kids in the
scary neighborhoods.”

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2. Anonymous said... on Jul 1, 2011 at 08:28AM

“Usually Old City Galleries are a mixed bag of good and bad work as is every gallery (even the hip ones) in Philadelphia.
In Philly the lines seem to be drawn more heavily along age in that the young and old don't mix as freely as in cities like NY and Chicago or L.A. Not sure why this is. There are start up spaces in "scary" neighborhoods in NYC who's openings are attended by young and old alike. I don't know what this means for Philly's art scene.
I do know that arts in general are having a tough time now and I'm not sure how general pot stirring for the sake of pot stirring (like this article) helps the situation.
Perhaps it natural that the young reject the old to some extent...whatever.”

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3. Marshall said... on Jul 2, 2011 at 02:17PM

“It doesn't sound like this article has a fair understanding of what's been going on in the North already now for well over half a decade. The Frankford Ave Arts Corridor isn't something new and unpublished. Asking a couple northern namesakes, like Extra Extra and Little Berlin what they think of the First Friday ritual isn't really doing your research. I mean what you are hinting at in this article is aesthetics (ex. young vs. old). True, the aesthetics of Old City and Fishtown are entirely different, but to say there aren't any old heads frequenting or involved in the bubble is more than slightly naive. There are as many families, middle-aged adults, and twenty-somethings found traversing the Fishtown bubble as Old City. The aesthetics of the galleries vary with yes, young folk making things, but also galleries like Highwire who has been up this way forever and shares a quality of expressionism and similar following found in some Old City galleries.”

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4. Anonymous said... on Jul 2, 2011 at 02:25PM

“Also, for a decent list of exhibitions through out the month, your best option is to look to the neighborhood websites and nonprofits. For instance, Frankford Ave Arts (http://frankfordavearts.org/) has been doing an incredible job of keeping listings accurate for the populace, including maps and handed out bills listing all events that are distributed everywhere. The Art Blog is another necessary source. Sorry to be frustrated, I just expected from a tagline like "Is First Friday Falling Behind the City's Fast-Growing Arts Scene?" something with more of an opinion than a simple puff piece.”

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